Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Behind the Books: Voice vs. Tone

I don’t usually get many comments on my blog posts, but people do often Tweet and email me with related questions. Since writing a series of posts about voice in nonfiction writing last January, I’ve received a number of inquiries about the difference between tone and voice. So here’s the way I look at it.

Traditionally, tone was defined as “author attitude.” In other words, if a child gets a broken toy for Christmas, he/she might write a complaint letter to the toy company. The tone of the letter would be frustrated and angry because that’s how the child felt. His/her feelings were coming through loud and clear.

In other words, tone is about the writer. It is what you hear when you read a personal narrative or an opinion piece or a personal letter.

Voice is about the reader. The author crafts the experience he/she wants the reader to have. I define voice as the personality of the writing or how the writing makes the reader feel. Just as a reminder, here’s a visual I use to show the nonfiction voice continuum:

I may not be feeling so lively on days when I’m working on a manuscript with a lively voice. But I have chosen that voice because I think it’s the best way to explain my topic to young readers.

In an effort to simplify writing for young children, the creators of the Six Traits of Writing used voice as an umbrella term, and most more recent writing programs seem to do the same thing. In 6 + 1 Traits of Wring, Ruth Culham describes voice in the following ways:
“. . . the writer’s passion for the topic coming through loud and clear.”

“. . . what writers use to assert their own way of looking at an idea.”

“. . . the sense that a real person is speaking to you and cares about the message.”

See? Those descriptors include the traditional definitions of both tone and voice. It seems like the terminology is evolving, so that voice now includes tone, but tone does not necessarily include voice.


  1. Hi Melissa, your blog is one of the very few I read (and collect) so thank you for all your interesting posts.This is another good one.

  2. Thank you, Melissa, for this post showing the difference between voice and tone. I appreciate the examples.

  3. So glad you liked the post, Charlotte.

  4. I love your post sharing the differences of voice and tone, Melissa! I hope it is okay, I shared it on my site.

  5. I'm glad you found this post useful, Sue. Please feel free to share it.